The patriarch of this Edwards family is John Edwardes, born about 1420 in England. Seven generations later his descendant William Edwards emigrated from Wales to Jamestown, Virginia. Four generations after that his descendant Robert R. E. Edwards made history, with the land purchase that came to be known as the Fabulous Edwards Estate. Robert’s brother, Thomas Nathaniel Edwards, is the ancestor of most of the Edwards families in Bedford, Huntingdon, Fulton and Blair County.
Manhattan Island, June 1, 1778 entered into a land deal. “Know all men by these presents: That I, Robert Edwards, on this day lease to John and George Cruger 77 acres 3 rods and 32 perches, beginning at a stake set in the ground at high water mark, near Bestavern, Fittlegil, and running east along Prince Street 1000 feet; thence northwesterly in a zigzag course along part of old Jan's land to Christopher Street to high water mark 547 feet; thence south along the Hudson River along the lines of high water mark 2,276 to the point and place of beginning. Said land being leased for 99 years at 1,000 pounds and a peppercorn yearly rental. Said land to be held by John and George Cruger and their heirs so long as contract is fulfilled; otherwise it must revert to me or my living heirs, and at the expiration of the 99 year lease said land together with all improvements shall revert to my lawful heirs, which will be descendants of my brothers and sister which are as follows: William Edwards, Jacob Edwards, Leonard Edwards, Joshua Edwards, John Edwards, Thomas Edwards and Martha Edwards. Witness my hand and seal this June 1, 1778 Witness: "Robert R. E. Edwards" Anthony Barclay "John Cruger" Nicholas Bayard "George Cruger"”
The area involved includes some of the most expensive real estate on earth, including some of New York's most valuable buildings. A court action in 1934 described it in present day terms as: Beginning at a point between West St. and Washington St. in New York City, Borough of Manhattan, running in a line parallel with Christopher St. which is three blocks to the north in a northeasterly direction to a point west of Broadway, thence south to a point north of Clarkson St. and Varick St; thence southeast in a staggered line crossing Clarkson, Hudson and Greenwich Sts. to a point north of King and Washington Sts., then northwest along Washington Street to the point of beginning.
An article in the Raleigh News & Observer, dated February 21, 1924, said the area included City Hall, the Federal Building, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Building, the Singer Building, the New York Stock Exchange and Wall Street. The article also added, "Which is without doubt one of the most valuable estates in the United States of America without an owner, and which the heirs are now fighting to regain.” The value of the area described is no myth. The 1924 article stated, "now said to be valued at $400,000,000," that is four hundred million. Its present value is impossible to estimate but would be in the billions. It was enough to make the Edwards family feel that any portion of it would put them at ease for life.
A newspaper article in Nashville, Tennessee dated August 11, 1950, says that records found in an old trunk owned by Mrs. Nancy O. Smith indicates that the sheepskin original lies in the Trinity Church Vault. Trinity Church became deeply involved in the story. There is little reference to the existence of the original lease in court records and Fannie Mae Edwards Claud did not record where she got the copy that she had in her possession. There were plenty of shenanigans pulled on the heirs by unscrupulous persons during the recovery effort. It is possible that this lease could have been prepared especially for them and was a hoax. The description of the land could have been obtained from an old court case, which began before the termination of the lease.
When the lease expired in 1877 the country was electrified by an inquiry from someone from New York about the heirs of Robert Edwards. Peyton Neale Clarke said in 1897 that it was a newspaper advertisement calling on the heirs to communicate with certain parties in New York City. Dorothy Ann Edwards wrote in 1885 that the governor of New York advertised for the heirs. From the information available it seems that various groups made an investigation and were informed that it would cost many thousands of dollars to make the necessary search both in America and in England and Wales and that possession would be disputed. No one came up with the money and the matter rested for several years, as far as any action being taken.
All over the country Edwards’s claimants appeared. Trinity once said there were five thousand. Associations were formed to lend organization and raise money in places like Detroit, Missouri and as far west as Denver. There was a Colorado Edwards Heirs Association who consolidated with others in 1930 to form the "International Consolidation of Edwards Heirs". The board of directors was from Canada, Mississippi, Oregon, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Indiana, Michigan, Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama and Texas. The headquarters of the association later moved to Nashville, Tennessee. The Edwards Family Claimant's Association was formed in Wales. Bruce Edwards has a clipping from the Wales Daily Mail dated Sept. 14, 1953 stating "there are 500 members of the Association, mostly working people from South Wales, all one big family, really, stemming from Old Thomas Edwards of Merthyr. The claimants maintain that through his family old Thomas' son Robert left behind in the U. S., land, on which Manhattan and Broadway now stand. He also left behind rich industrial tracts in South Wales. The American fortune, they say, is worth about 280,000,000 pounds and is growing each week. In this country there is a fortune held in Chancery, about 50,000,000 pounds". The total of the fortune on both sides of the Atlantic was enormous.
The Edwards of Northampton County, North Carolina hired a lawyer to investigate their claim. He went to New York, sold them out and returned home to convince them that they had no right to it and prevented them from entering any claim. The name of the lawyer, a Judge, is given repeatedly in Bruce Edwards' files, but is not used because he has descendants too.
Bruce Edwards also has a deathbed confession of the Judge, which took place in 1911. The confession was to Tom Odom who made the affidavit shown below, and dated December 5, 1924, witnessed by Rev. C. E. Edwards and notarized by J. G. Eanes, Notary Public.
When the Judge was dying he showed such agony the doctor saw that he had something on his mind that was worrying him and he asked him if he had anything he wanted to say before he passed on. "Yes", he replied, "call in some witnesses quick. I have a confession to make. Get Tom Odom if you can, his wife is an heir". The following is what he said, "In 1877 when the Robert R. E. Edwards 99-year lease expired in New York, I told the heirs if they would give me two hundred and fifty dollars that I would go to New York and straighten out the estate for them and that they pay me more when the estate was settled, and they readily trusted me. The heirs had confidence in me; they trusted me and I betrayed them. I meant to do the right thing, I don't know what made me do such a foolish thing as I did, but the New York people hated to give up the improvements they had put on this land and they persuaded me. They talked mighty nice and sweet until I had signed their papers and accepted the large sum of money they paid me and then they made it plain that if I ever betrayed them it meant death for me. They told me there was nowhere that I could hide where they could not find me and that they would get me even if I went into the ground. I was in Hell the minute after I signed those papers and accepted that cursed money and I have been in Hell ever since. I have never been able to enjoy one cent of that money. I was afraid to use it; I couldn't sleep, something was always after me. On my way home from New York I was in distress, not knowing how to face the heirs, but knowing them like I did and knowing how honorable and fine they were, I made up this tale before I reached home. I told them I found out the estate was not theirs and I insinuated that they were trying to get something that did not belong to them. I hurt them, I hurt them plenty and God has made me suffer for it.
These heirs are the descendants of Samuel Edwards who died in 1790; He was the son of John Edwards who came from England with his brother Robert Edwards and settled in Northampton County. Tell all the heirs I am sorry for what I did and tell them the property is rightfully theirs and they can get it. I did not sign any papers to keep them from getting the property. I couldn't sign any papers to keep them from getting their own property.”
The following story, as developed by Fannie Mae Edwards Claud, a member of the Tennessee/Arkansas, Edwards family who carried the burden of the fight for over thirty years, is in part, as follows: “Robert Edwards was one of the three brothers, Robert, Jacob and John, who came to America from Wales. Jacob settled in Tidewater, Virginia but later returned to England and died there. Robert and John came to Northampton County. John bought 267 acres there. Robert was not married and lived with John and his wife Elizabeth. Elizabeth died after the birth of their son, and John returned to England and died, leaving the farm in Northampton to his son Samuel. Robert traded in real estate for some time, then went to New York and invested his money in land there. He leased it for 99 years and embarked for England. The ship and all passengers were lost in a storm. This should have been a simple matter to reclaim this land, but there were problems. The lease was not found recorded in New York. There are stories that records were altered to eliminate it.”
Fannie Mae Edwards Claud took up the fight for the North Carolina Edwards again by asking Tom Odom to tell the story of the Judge again exactly as he remembered it. She then typed it, had him sign it, and had C. E. Edwards witness his signature. She attested to both signatures before a notary. She then took an affidavit on Feb. 10,1925 from S. J. Calvert, Register of Deeds for Northampton County about two lawyers coming that day to examine County records about Robert Edwards. He quotes the lawyers as saying, "Every damn thing here is against us and if those heirs ever get in court we will lose everything". On the next day, she took a notarized statement from Charles Eaton Edwards, giving the family history as he had heard it from his father and written it down at the time. She obtained copies of deeds, the will of Samuel Edwards probated in 1790 and others, and built a firm claim to a part of the fortune.
Now comes double-cross number two. She had attended a meeting in Portsmouth, Virginia of Edwards’s heirs in 1924 and was impressed with the sincerity of a certain lawyer. She furnished him copies of her claim. She initiated correspondence with various claimants who recommended another lawyer, and she entrusted the latter with the claim for her family. She did not keep copies of her letters in the early years, but did later; those of this attorney to her are in Bruce's files. Later she wrote:
"He wrote me to meet him at the Monticello Hotel at Norfolk a certain date and to come alone. Not knowing what it was all about and being tied down on the job I did not go, but found out later they got a pay-off. This is not fair and just. If I had gone I would have been paid but the other heirs would have been left out. This is not right in the sight of God or man...it seems that Trinity would be glad to payoff the heirs for the land after they had it free over a hundred years..."
She named the two lawyers in another statement and said, “They and others were paid off at the Monticello Hotel, in Norfolk, Va. in 1925. The heirs got nothing.”
Apparently, the Cruger brothers never paid any rent on the land to anyone. It can be assumed that no one ever asked for it. Robert Edwards was dead and it is possible that none of his heirs ever knew of the lease. The Crugers are supposed to have sub-leased all or part of the land to the Trinity Corporation around 1800, and it built the church and established a graveyard on the land, according to the suits filed.
Some suits against Trinity claimed that title to the land descended to the heirs of Thomas Hael and his son-in-law Robert Edwards. Trinity countered with the claim that the land was granted to them by Queen Anne of England in 1705 and presented grants to prove it, but with such vague descriptions that they were open to question.
In 1930, the International Consolidation of Edwards Heirs filed suit in New York. The suit failed, as others had before, for the simple reason that the State of New York had a Statute of Limitations that provided that if no claim was made within fifteen years after the expiration of a lease by the lessor or his heirs, the occupants or possessors of the property received full title by adverse possession. The property was theirs no longer. The Judge had done his work well.
In 1947, Fannie Mae Edwards Claud resumed the fight. She wrote to the mayor of New York City who replied that he could not give her any information. She appealed directly to the Trinity Corporation, stating the family claim and asking for justice. Their attorney, Mr. Shepard, wrote her that the Supreme courts of both New York State and the United States had upheld their title and they would not recognize any claim against it. She wrote him again in 1948. He replied, "I may say that I am constantly receiving letters from all parts of the world from people claiming an interest in the property owned by Trinity Church..." but insisted that there was no possibility of recognizing her claim.
British subjects residing in England, Canada and New Zealand filed a suit against Trinity Church. This case was dismissed. Fannie Mae Edwards Claud then employed John F. X. Brown, an attorney in New York, in October of 1948 and paid him a fee. He reported at length in January of 1949, citing court cases, saying that the case was hopeless. She wrote the Department of Justice in Washington in June of 1949. She also wrote the Chief Post Office Inspector, President Harry S. Truman, the American Arbitration Association in New York, to Honorable W. M.Tuck, Governor of Virginia, to the Lord Mayor of Cardiff, Wales: all to no avail. In 1953 the Hael Heirs filed another suit and the New York Sunday News covered the story in the December 13, 1953 issue. The case was dismissed.
In 1954 Fannie Mae made another appeal to Mr. Shepard, the attorney for the Trinity Corporation. His answer was courteous but firm on April 23,1954: "The courts have definitely held that any possible claims are barred by the Statute of Limitations. It would, therefore, be useless to discuss the matter any further."